Horizon show often sizzles but finally fizzles

As William Hurt so famously put it in “The Big Chill,” sometimes you just have to let art flow over you. Horizon Theatre’s production of “Every Tongue Confess” is one of those times.

Marcus Gardley’s folkloric play with music is by turns bold and bizarre, and it’s staged by director Thomas W. Jones II with enough visual flair to compensate (at least partially) for the show’s periodically inscrutable and ultimately overbearing narrative.

Set in the sweltering backwoods of Alabama, the story takes place in 1996 as a series of black church burnings grip the community. For the members of one extended congregation, figurative fires and inner demons simmer and erupt in a number of loosely intertwined subplots both real and imagined, some in the present and others from the past.

Mother Sister (played by the wonderful Minka Wiltz) is a preacher woman with a possibly divine healing touch, a lovelorn widow raising a young son, Shadrack (Richard Hatcher). After a tall dark stranger named Blacksmith (Victor Love) literally materializes out of thin air, he gradually warms her chilly heart.

Gardley’s alternate (white) universe centers around one Stoker Pride (Brian Kurlander), a self-professed “redneck snot.” When his equally trashy ex-wife, Bernadette (Deborah Bowman), ends up in a coma, he regains custody of their young daughter, Benny (Lauren Boyd), who, in a temporary state of shock, symbolically loses her voice to a mystical swallow.

How that bird happens to make off with Benny’s voice is only one innovative flourish that Jones achieves with the help of video designer Mike Post. Another memorable moment depicts an ominous midsummer hail storm.

To simulate the story’s many fires (and a violent lynching flashback), Mary Parker’s lighting design turns blazingly red, as Post projects giant flames that seem to engulf the stage and eerily flicker against the white robes worn by the play’s Greek chorus of gossiping parishioners (Enoch King, Bernardine Mitchell and an especially resourceful Brad Raymond). In other scenes, Jones utilizes lengths of red fabric to represent blood.

Using a prerecorded instrumental track, musical director S. Renee Clark has composed a few original songs for Horizon’s version of the show, in addition to those already included in Gardley’s script. They are resoundingly performed by the company, at once a welcome opportunity to enjoy the beautifully trained voices of Wiltz and Mitchell, in particular, and a much-needed reprieve from the rest of the play’s increasingly frustrating heavy-handedness.

“Every Tongue Confess” is decidedly not for all tastes and frankly a bit of a mess by the end, replete with a climactic resolution that’s overly tidy and preposterous in equal measure. Given its questionable prospects for mainstream popularity or commercial success, it’s a gutsy undertaking for Horizon – seriously flawed, but a respectable effort nonetheless. There’s something to be said for trying, even though the production otherwise largely falters.

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